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Spot metering

Think of spot metering as a skilled detective investigating a crime scene. Just like the detective focuses on crucial evidence and disregards irrelevant details, spot metering zooms in on a specific area of your composition to gather accurate exposure information...

What is spot metering?

Spot metering is a camera metering mode that provides precise control over exposure by measuring the light in a specific spot or area of your frame.

Unlike other metering modes that evaluate the overall scene, spot metering hones in on a small portion, allowing you to prioritize the exposure of your subject or a specific element within the composition.

By understanding the concept of spot metering, you can unlock its potential to capture perfectly exposed photographs in various challenging lighting conditions. Let's take a closer look at how it works.

How does spot metering work?

When you activate spot metering mode on your camera, a small area or a specific focus point is selected as the metering point. This point becomes the reference area from which the camera measures the light intensity.

The camera's metering sensor or the selected focus point analyzes the brightness values of this spot and calculates the necessary exposure settings. I've found that the size of the spot metering area can vary depending on the camera model and settings. It is usually a small fraction of the total frame, typically around 1-5% of the viewfinder area.

This small spot ensures that only the light falling on that specific area is taken into account when determining the exposure.

Regarding focus, spot metering is commonly linked to the camera's active autofocus point, which means the metering area coincides with your active focus point, ensuring that the exposure is based on the subject you're focusing on.

However, some cameras (such as Sony) also allow you to manually move the spot metering point manually, providing additional flexibility to meter-specific areas even if they don't coincide with the active autofocus point.

Now that we know how it works let's examine why it's used.

Why is spot metering used?

As a portrait photographer, spot metering is usually my go-to metering mode due to its precise control over exposure in different lighting conditions. Here are all the reasons why I believe spot metering should be used.

1. Accurate subject exposure

The first reason spot metering is used is for accurate subject exposure.

Spot metering is the perfect metering mode if you have a single point of focus or subject because spot metering enables you to achieve accurate exposure for your subjects, even when faced with complex lighting conditions.

By metering a specific spot or area on the subject, you can ensure that it is properly exposed, regardless of the brightness or darkness of the surrounding elements. For example, when I photograph a backlit portrait, spot metering on the subject's face allows me to capture their features with ideal exposure, avoiding underexposure caused by the bright background.

2. Manager high contrast scenes

The second reason spot metering is used is to manage high-contrast scenes.

In scenes with high contrast, such as landscapes with bright skies and deep shadows, spot metering can help balance exposure and preserve details in highlight and shadow areas. I've found that if you meter the brightest or most important part of the scene, you can ensure that it receives the correct exposure, while other areas may be intentionally underexposed or overexposed for creative effect.

This technique allows you to maintain detail in both the bright and dark areas, creating a visually striking image. If a certain area is too underexposed, you can bring it into post-processing and brighten up that specific area.

3. Controlling exposure in mixed light

The third reason spot metering is used is to control exposure in mixed light. By mixed light, I mean both natural and artificial light.

When faced with mixed lighting sources, such as a scene with natural and artificial light, spot metering allows you to prioritize the exposure for specific areas. For example, I've found this to be particularly helpful in a room with a window casting bright daylight on one side and artificial indoor lighting on the other.

I like to use spot metering in this situation because it can help you accurately expose the subject under the artificial light, disregarding the brightness of the window. This will ensure your subject is properly exposed while maintaining the overall mood and balance of the composition.

Now that we know why spot metering is used, let's dive into some tips you can use.

5 Tips for using spot metering mode

To get the most out of spot metering on your photoshoots, here are five tips I've found useful based on my experience.

1. Identify your critical area

The first tip when using spot metering is to identify your critical area.

Before activating spot metering, identify the crucial area within your composition that requires accurate exposure. It could be a person's face, a specific object, or a vital element you want to highlight.

By pinpointing this area, you can ensure that your exposure readings are focused on the most important part of the scene. For example, suppose you're photographing a flower in a garden. By using spot metering on the delicate petals, you can ensure that they retain their intricate details and vibrant colors, regardless of the overall lighting conditions.

2. Understand the light contrast

The second tip when using spot metering is to understand the light contrast.

When approaching a scene, you'll want to evaluate the lighting conditions in your scene, paying attention to the contrast between your subject and the surrounding elements.

Spot metering is particularly useful in high-contrast situations with significantly different brightness levels. You can use spot metering to expose the specific area of interest, effectively managing highlights and shadows.

For example, if you're going to capture a sunset landscape, then spot metering on the sun itself will allow you to retain the richness and brilliance of the sunset colors while avoiding overexposure to the rest of the scene.

3. Utilize exposure lock

The third tip when using spot metering is to also utilize an exposure lock.

In situations where you need to recompose the frame after metering, consider using the exposure lock feature. Once you've metered the desired spot, engage the exposure lock function to lock in the exposure settings.

This way, you can recompose without the camera automatically readjusting the exposure based on the new framing. So, for example, one way I've found this to be helpful is if you're photographing a portrait with the subject slightly off-center.

By spot metering on the subject's face, locking the exposure, and then recomposing the frame, you can maintain the correct exposure even if the subject moves within the frame.

4. Consider exposure compensation

The fourth tip when using spot metering is to consider using exposure compensation when needed.

Spot metering provides a precise exposure reading for the metered area, but it's imperfect and may not always result in the desired overall exposure. You'll want to experiment with exposure compensation to fine-tune the exposure according to your creative vision.

Increase or decrease the exposure compensation to adjust the overall brightness while keeping the spot-metered area correctly exposed. Let's take the example of a black cat to illustrate this point better.

If you photograph a black cat in a dimly lit room, spot-metering its fur may result in an underexposed image. So what do you do? In order to compensate, you can apply positive exposure compensation to ensure that the entire scene is adequately exposed while retaining the details of the cat's fur.

5. Practice and review

The fifth tip is to practice and review.

Just like any photography technique or technical skill, spot metering requires practice and familiarity with your camera's metering system. I recommend regularly reviewing your images to assess the effectiveness of your spot metering technique.

You should pay attention to the balance of highlights, shadows, and overall exposure. After a photo shoot, I would go into post-processing, look at the histogram, and see how spot metering affected the exposure in my images.

I would analyze the highlights and shadows to identify the areas that needed better adjustment and refinement for future shoots. Do this a few times, and you'll become more familiar with spot metering and how it works!

How to set your camera to spot metering mode

Actually, setting your camera to spot metering mode is fairly easy and straightforward.

First, you'll want to go into your camera menu. From the menu, you'll want to look for the metering mode settings, which are also sometimes accessible through a button on your camera (check your camera manual). For example, I have the Canon 5D Mark IV, and I can change my metering mode using a button on the top of my camera.

Once you're in the metering mode settings, set your camera to spot metering mode which is usually indicated as the image with the dot in the middle of the frame.

Spot metering vs center-weighted metering

If you read my metering mode guide, you may have noticed that there are other metering modes besides spot metering. One of those other metering modes is center-weighted metering.

Unlike spot metering, which provides very precise control, center-weighted metering, on the other hand, offers a more balanced approach by considering the overall exposure of the scene while prioritizing the central area. This method is well-suited for general photography when you want to evaluate the scene as a whole and have a more natural, even exposure.

For example, if you're going to capture a vast landscape scene with a prominent subject in the center, surrounded by other elements, then center-weighted metering will assess the overall exposure of the scene but prioritize the central subject.

You'll find this technique helps ensure that the main subject is properly exposed while the surrounding elements contribute to the overall exposure evaluation.

Spot metering vs evaluative metering

Another popular metering mode is evaluative metering. Unlike spot metering, evaluative metering considers the entire scene and provides a balanced exposure based on various factors. It is well-suited for general-purpose photography and situations where you want to evaluate the scene as a whole.

Returning to the landscape example, let's say you're photographing a landscape with a wide range of tones, including bright skies, shadowy trees, and a flowing river. Evaluative metering will consider all these elements and provide a balanced exposure for the entire scene.

It will take into account the different tonal values and ensure a well-balanced exposure, resulting in a natural-looking landscape image.

In conclusion, spot metering is just one of several exposure measurement techniques available, and choosing the right method depends on the specific shooting scenario and your creative vision.

The next time you encounter challenging lighting conditions or the need for precise exposure control, embrace spot metering as your go-to tool. Good luck and happy photographing!

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